There are few things more sacred in public relations than the ability to keep business secrets close to the vest. It certainly rings true that information is power. Just look at recent news headlines and you will know there is more than a gray area, fine line or question in the mind of many about when secrets should be disclosed.
Let’s be clear, I’m not talking here about keeping dirty little secrets related to whistleblower ethics. As a public relations professional or someone who uses one, you have a bigger obligation to the world, the PR industry and countless other players than to allow yourself to become the willing or unwilling mouthpiece for an organization crossing ethical lines.
At times like that, your gut will tell you if your poker face is going to win the hand or cause you to lose or cash in more chips than you bargained for! Your reputation alone isn’t worth that risk (not to mention all the other potential fallout). Those are the times when you may find you need to “fold ‘em,” whether that means working the required internal chain, public or private disclosure, court-required disclosure, or just walking away.
By nature of PR’s role to share timely information with external stakeholders, we often have early indications of internal change or other impactful news. That comes with major responsibility. It is heightened, of course, when you work in a public company governed by U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) rules, but the need to know “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” is the same for any person entrusted with the confidences involved in doing business.
Holding such confidences can be particularly tricky when dealing with inquiring minds, be they fellow employees or reporters. In some organizations, leaking news of product launches, reorgs and anything with the remote scent of an “I know something you don’t know” advantage just seems to be an unfortunate yet ingrained part of the culture. Believe me, that adds incredible challenges for PR!
Now, you may be asking yourself, why and when would you want to keep a company secret? Surely, many companies already have a, well, let’s say a black eye when it comes to disclosure gone bad. Can’t argue that. But there are more legitimate times for holding a business confidence than not. Here are some of the top ones:
When to Hold ‘Em
- Anything under NDA – You don’t want to mess with any lawyer coming after you! When a major change is in the works, particularly one that can impact the financial valuation or obligations of a business, anyone with access to that information must sign a non-disclosure agreement. That means you can’t tell even your best friend she/he may be impacted. The gossip vine grows roots at times like this. And remember, even if you don’t sign a document for a specific disclosure, it is likely in your hiring contract. All PR professionals operate under an implied NDA regardless.
- Embargoed news – Yes, there are still some news organizations that honor embargoes, but don’t count on it. In other words, plan for leaks either from internal sources or external. Granted, I have actually seen some organizations break their own embargoes to “whisper” about and test an upcoming product launch – but you shouldn’t. Remember, this is your bread and butter, your competitive advantage, and the reason your company has enough sales to pay you! Besides, an unbelievable amount of work goes into launching any new product. Don’t be the one that shows your hand too soon!
- Customer/Client information – It goes without saying, well, maybe we shouldn’t assume. Let’s be clear, information gathered in the course of doing business with a customer/client is not yours to disclose. Always ask permission! That often means even to disclose they are your customer. Your PR team will have a strict process in place to verify any and all public disclosures about a customer. Often, disclosure is part of negotiated, legally-binding contracts. Hold ‘em tight!